My Favorite Tools for Running an Online Business
Updated: Jan 4
This post contains affiliate links, and I may receive a commission if you make a purchase using my link, but there is no additional cost to you. I am not an employee of any of these companies.
I love free stuff! So a lot of the tools I use have free versions, but of course there will always be more functionality with the paid versions, so I've indicated whether a product or service has free or paid versions.
This is where I post my list of recommended products, and products that I don't recommend. I've included links for you to both of those so you can check them out and make up your own mind.
I will also update this page when I find new products and services that I think are helpful for writers and teachers who want to start or run an online business without having to pay an arm and a leg for it.
If you're going to run an online business, then you MUST have your own website! It's the only way that you can do what you really want to do with your business. Every other site can impose their own restrictions and change them whenever they want to.
Both of the website providers I've listed here have free versions. Try them both and test them out to see which one you like best.
My recommendation: Wix
Why? All of the website management is done for you, and I have never had a problem with my website being down. I tried free versions for both of the other popular sites that are listed below and looked into the options available.
WordPress.org (the free version) would have required me to either do a lot more of the tech required, or to hire someone to do all of that for me. Wix's premium plans offer a ton of functionality: your own membership site, integrated email management, forms, web themes, integrated plug-ins, your own e-commerce, and automatic updates.
I love Wix! I started with the free plan just to test it out, so originally I didn't have my own domain name. Once I knew I was going to use Wix to host my business instead of WordPress, I upgraded to their premium plan which also allows me to host and manage my website domains.
They make it really easy to set up your own email addresses once you have your own verified domain, which is the name of your website with the web address, like www.mysite.com. You'll definitely need that if you're going to use the site for your business, especially if you're going to have an email list (see the email entry below to see why). It's not just a way for you to run your online business, it can also show that you're running a legitimate business, and not just a fly-by-night setup. Click here to check out Wix.
WordPress: .com vs .org
A lot of people like WordPress for blogging. It's not expensive to start because it's open software and free, but you do have to pay for all of the additional plug-ins, themes, domain registration, etc. You also have to manage all of the tech updates for them or hire someone to do that for you.
I used the free version of WordPress.com for a time, which also offers a paid version, but I still found that there was a LOT I had to figure out on my own. It also meant that I had very little control over the advertising, didn't earn any of the income from the advertising, and that WordPress owned my content.
As I said, you can purchase themes from other developers, and many of them will provide tech support, but it's an additional cost.
This is why I went with Wix; all of that was done behind the scenes and I could just focus on blogging without worrying about all of the tech requirements; they're included in the package with Wix.
Wordpress.org is the site that uses open source software, which means that it's free. You do have to do your own design and tech support, or pay someone else to do it for you. That includes:
The server where the site is hosted
The registration and ownership of your domain name
The amount of users who will be able to visit your site each month
Any other integrations you want to include (for mailing lists, blogs, videos, etc.)
Wordpress.com has a free plan for blogging, but they run ads on your site and you don't receive any of the income from that. You also have limited control over what ads are run, although they do try to match it to the content that you post.
If you don't already have a mailing list, or if your list is still tiny and is basically just your mom and a few friends, you need 2 things:
A system to manage your contacts well so you can keep in touch with people
A way to let those people know about what you have to offer and how you can help them
Quick Review of contact management programs
My recommendation: MailerLite
Why? LOTS of functionality (even on the free plan), very easy to use, and their customer service is phenomenal, even on the free plan.
Love this program! It's so easy to set up landing pages, link to them, have my freebies sent automatically to people, and email everyone on my mailing list. And they have fantastic customer service, even on the free plan!
I use the free program, which is available if you have less than 1,000 people on your mailing list. That free program still allows me to:
Segment my list based on interest. If people are interested in a particular topic I can let them know about other related resources, and if they're not interested in that particular topic then they don't have to get those emails
Create my own landing pages: I don't need to pay for additional software!
Automate email sequences, so when someone is interested in either a free download or one of my products, I can set up a series of emails to help them get the most out of whatever they were interested in
Track email open rates so I know that if someone isn't reading my emails or interested in the information or products that I'm offering
Clean up the list
What does "clean up the list" mean?
It means if someone hasn't opened an email from me in awhile (6 months), they might be an automated bot instead of a real person. If it's a bot it could have been programmed to submit requests for downloads or get added to the list based on a link on a website. When your list gets larger and you move to a paid program, those bots can end up costing you a lot of money because of the number of wasted emails you'll send. So MailerLite has a feature where you can delete anyone who hasn't opened an email, based on the parameters you set. 6 months is the time that I've heard it recommended most, so if someone hasn't opened a single email from you in that time, you can delete them from your list just by running that feature.
And did I mention they have great customer service?
It's a big factor in making decisions about who to work with, and who to buy products and service from. I'm sure you've been on the receiving end of bad customer service, which can really turn you off from buying something, even if it's a great product or service. Click here to check out MailerLite.
I don't use it, and haven't used it, but I know a lot of people really like it. I know this, because I'm on mailing lists that use it, and they promote it while talking about the features (just so you know where I'm coming from!). It has a lot of the same features as MailerLite, but it's free plan only allows you to have very limited functionality. They do have a great reputation, but that's all I can say since I haven't used it, except that I think it's definitely worth looking into its features and costs to see if it would work for you. Click here to check out ConvertKit
I know a lot of people like MailChimp, but I found their user interface to be very confusing. I started on the free program (when I was the only person on my mailing list!) and got a good start on building my mailing list...and then they changed their options and REALLY limited the services for free users. It was good to start with, but I wanted to be able to segment my list and automate. When someone requests a free download, I didn't want them to have to wait for me to manually reply and send them the link; they should be able to get the download right away.
They also didn't offer much AT ALL in customer support for the free version. I think that's terrible, because when you're just starting out, you really need a LOT more help with troubleshooting and just figuring out how things work.
The only support they offered for those of us trying out the free plan was a lot of articles in their "help" section of the website. Right now, they only offer support for the first 30 days on their free plan and a limited number of emails that you're able to send per month.
It was when they "upgraded" and changed the features available for the free plan that I left. Once you give customers (or employees) certain benefits, you can't take them away. It ticks people off, because now they've lost something that they saw as a benefit of doing business with you. Unfortunately, the features that MailChimp took away from the free plan were the very ones that caused me to sign up in the first place, and if they worked well for me then I would have upgraded to the paid plan. Click here to check out MailChimp. (That was when I switched to MailerLite)
Anyone can use Pinterest for free and pin craft projects, books, recipes, etc. But if you're going to use it to promote your business, you need to set up a business account.
It's free for business accounts, too!
There are 5 Big Benefits for a Business Account:
You can see how many people view your pins and make better choices about your content and sales
It allows you to have your website recognized by Pinterest as a business site, when you go through the site verification process (which is a lot easier than that sounds)
It allows you to advertise your products, services, and blog posts (it's also a really inexpensive place to advertise!)
You're less likely to be tagged as a spammer when you post a lot of pins
Lends credibility to your business because it shows you're not just a fly-by-night scammer--you're running a legitimate business.
If you post too often, or haphazardly, Pinterest won't rank you as highly in the searches. They want to see you posting and creating new content consistently (if you're running a business) and often. But part of the point of running an online business is so that you don't have to be tied to your work and computer all the time, so posting pins throughout the day is a potential problem!
That's why I use Tailwind, (scroll down for more about Tailwind) which will pin automatically for me on Pinterest! It also works for Instagram, but I'm not on Instagram so I haven't tried that part of the program.
Pinterest also has the ability to join group boards.
Group boards are set up by Pinterest users on their own, but they're boards that others are allowed to share their pins on as well. I've listed below some of the group boards that I participate in as examples. Click the links to check them out:
I run 3 group boards on Pinterest:
I'm also on group boards run by others:
Check them out on Pinterest!
Managing Your Social Media Content
Tailwind is a software program that will automatically post on Pinterest and Instagram on a regular schedule so you don't have to be tied to your computer ALL THE TIME.
Plus, they have a free trial! I love free stuff :) That was how I started using Tailwind. It's a browser-based app, but they also have apps for iPhones and Android. They really do a lot to help you make the best use of the program. They have:
Online chat with customer service within the app
Lots of articles and suggestions to promote your business
They also get back to you VERY quickly when you have questions! Their customer service is very helpful, too.
Can you tell that I love this program?
This is fantastic! I use Tailwind to automatically schedule my pins days and weeks in advance. If I have one pin that I want to post on several boards, I can schedule it in Tailwind to spread out the posts instead of having that pin post to multiple boards all at once. I can automate:
Which boards to post on Pinterest
Which order a given pin should post to different boards
How long of a time period to spread out the posts
I can also choose to repin any of my previously posted pins whenever I want it to, and schedule that using the SmartLoops feature.
It means that as far as Pinterest is concerned, I'm active on the site throughout the day. That means that pins from my site are going to rank higher in searches and are more likely to be found and get clicks from Pinterest users. Yay!
Communities (formerly called "Tribes")
Tailwind also has their own version of group boards, called Tailwind Communities. You have to have a Tailwind account to join one of their communities or to start your own, but everyone who joins a community is there to share their own pins and to share the pins of others.
I have several tribes that I manage on Tailwind that you can join:
You're in the tribes to advertise your own pins, but you also get help from others who will help you--just as you help them to share their own content. Click here to try Tailwind
I am definitely more creative than organized! This is why I need programs to help me keep track of projects I'm working on, or just ideas for potential future projects. The two sites that I've found help me with this are:
I was keeping lists and notes on various ideas, links, "to-do lists" that were everywhere... so of course everything was falling through the cracks and getting lost!
Then I signed up for Asana--for free! I love this site! All of that is in one place, and I can access it from my laptop, phone, or tablet. They have several templates to use, but you can also use your own.
At heart, it's a project management program, but you can use it even for small projects or task/to-do lists. What Asana allows you to do is keep track of:
All of your projects and tasks
What you need to do
What you've done so far
What you've finished
You can use it on your own, or as part of a team. I keep my links, to-do list, ideas for stuff, and keep track of my projects in it. It's a visual platform, so there is a bit of a learning curve if you haven't used anything like it before, but they do have tutorials and templates to get started--and they're free! They do have paid plans that offer a lot more features, but their free program has a LOT available. Click here to check out Asana.
I took a quick look at Trello, but that's all I did. It seems to do a lot of the things that Asana does, and it's also free (or at least has a free version).
The reason I'm listing it here is because I've heard a number of people try it and say they like it for tracking their blog posts. If I give it a try, I'll update this entry and let you know, but it's on this list because of the recommendation of others that I know. Plus, it's free.
Design Your Graphics Online
If you poke around my site, you'll quickly notice that I have NO visual design skills. So how do I create the images I use for my blog and Pinterest?
I use Canva, which is an online graphic design app where you can design your own graphics for almost everything! They have tons of templates for social media, ebooks, flyers, banners, and a bunch of other stuff. You can also create your customized image size and do whatever you want with it. There is a paid version which (of course) has a lot more features, but trying out the free one is definitely worth it! You have a lot more options on the paid version, but I used the free version for several years before I upgraded.
All of the images that I create for Pinterest are done in Canva.
Easil is a "new to me" online app for graphic design, so I've only played with it a little bit, but I really liked it! It has a different interface than Canva, so it takes some adjustment. I haven't used it to create graphics or pins yet, I've only played around, but it's a good one to keep on the list.
That's my list for now! I will update this page whenever I find new products or services that will help small online businesses, so bookmark the page and check back often!
If you have any recommendations, post them in the comments so I can check them out!
Original post date: 12/21/19